Learning by involvement
It is not a new concept for anyone that young children learn most effectively when they are feeling well and having fun. Educators are completely aware of how child psychology and theories of education come to life through children’s play. The valuation, name and recognition of play has changed through centuries of human history.
However, regardless of how children’s activity is appreciated, the essence and importance of caring for and educating children in their early years remains unchanged: young children’s learning and development (in all areas) takes place through their engagement with the world around them, which engagement, in my understanding, play is. There are many ways in which children can learn alongside adults and – not surprisingly – the most enjoyable and most engaging ones can be found right on the adults’ doorsteps, requiring no additional organisation, cost or effort.
All that effective learning needs is trust placed in the children and in their abilities, and learning will happen naturally. Learning that is provided through the approach of believing in children’s skills and capacity, will automatically aid all areas of development and can be offered in any setting, in any time of the year. Preparing for Christmas is the annual period when educational settings, whilst being busy with “getting ready”, want to achieve a set of goals: teaching history and traditions; helping children to understand the essence of preparation; strengthen emotional links; becoming creative and in the meantime keeping children healthy and fit in the changing season. In order to accomplish the many aims, educators create detailed plans listing all days, all children and all activities.
However, following an educational approach and adapting an adult behaviour, that – instead of planning and delivering – emphasises involvement in real life experiences and encourages engaging in purposeful everyday tasks, will result in deep learning based on positive memories.
Baking as a learning activity?
In the time Advent baking is an obvious choice of early years activity. One purpose of the traditional Advent was getting prepared, and apart from the preparation of the mind, in the weeks leading up to Christmas handwritten recipe books took a major role on Sundays in the old-fashioned households. In Advent time “working”, meaning baking, on Sundays was allowed – as for the rest of the time farmer wives worked really hard with no spare time for baking. For almost each weekend, the recipe books had a cookie recipe that needed exactly as many weeks to mature its flavour, as many there were left until Christmas, compared to the Sunday the cookie was advised to be baked on. A larger amount of each was prepared, and then packed in pretty boxes, ladies visited each other and swapped their bakes, accompanied by cups of warm, sweet drinks and a dash of heart-warming chat. By the festive times, each household owned a rather exciting variety of wonderful Christmas treats.
The simple cookie-preparing and cookie-swap are mines of learning activities, and all children were involved in each step of the preparation. Following old traditions helps young children to understand their heritage and who they are in the world around them, and to see and understand similarities and differences.
Reading recipes, making connection between print and speech, helps children’s literacy. Personal, social development is aided by listening to personal stories and memories whilst baking and visiting neighbours, and by accomplishing children’s personal targets when taking responsibility for small tasks, such as chopping dried fruit or cutting out biscuits.
Mathematical concepts are brought to life by measuring and weighing ingredients, counting baked products; children will also recognise the passing time when – during waiting for the cookies to bake – past events are being retold.
Whilst decorating bakes, creative development gains a new meaning by exchanging paint for chocolate and jam. In this process, children communicate with other people, listen and pay attention, easily understand what is being said due to the real life demonstration and develop their vocabulary when making sense of various tasks.
Inevitably, involving children in all everyday activities, aids their holistic growth.
Baking and Physical development?
Still, physical development is unlikely to be the aimed learning outcome when educators incorporate baking in the list of planned early years activities. The area of physical development looks at supporting children in using their senses and bodies to explore the world around them and make connections between new and existing knowledge. They should have the chance to be active and interact with things to improve their skills of coordination, control, manipulation and movement. Children also need to develop an understanding of healthy living practices, whilst moving around using gross motor skills, developing fine motor skills and managing self-care independently. It may not be obvious, but baking is the perfect and one of the most enjoyable activities to aid children’s physical development.
Physical development for the under-threes is the basis of overall learning. Babies and young toddlers, whilst engaging in a baking activity, are becoming physically active with their limbs. Moving large muscles to mix and lift supports the development of the brain, as well as strengthening muscles and developing the heart and lungs. When focussing on the activity in front of them, very young children are developing their neck muscles and learn to control their heads, limbs, that also develops their capabilities in speech and language skills.
Developing shoulder strength, hand strength, coordination and stability when sitting up with support to cut or ice biscuits, is important for later movement skills including handwriting. Using simple tools and equipment – such as wooden spoons or large whisks – effectively develops a combination of fine motor control and hand-eye coordination, which need lots of practice. Whilst handling ingredients, their hands and skin will feel a variety of textures, temperatures, and this physical stimulation aids their palm- and finger pad sensitivity, helping babies to leave their oral stage behind quicker in the process, getting ready for speech.
Motor skill development
As children grow, their nervous systems become more mature. In this process, they become more and more capable of performing increasingly complex motor actions, both gross and fine. Nearly all children begin to exhibit these motor skills at a fairly consistent rate (unless there is some type of disability present).
During a baking activity many gross or large motor skills are required involving the larger muscles in the arms and legs. Actions include standing, balancing and coordination, when kneading dough or mixing batter by the table. Kneading dough is a very serious task and children will really make an effort to do it well. It develops greater strength in their muscles as well as pride in their souls! Increased strength, muscle tone, movement quality and a range of movements are also needed when foraging for ingredients with the children. Children enter the world with being biologically programmed to want to learn and to learn quickly. They are able to make connections and use the connected information to develop rapidly and drastically.
In order to reach their full potential in learning, children need physical stimulus, variety and excitement in their physical environment. Foraging and baking with foraged ingredients provide opportunities for all the factors of excellent teaching to reach the forefront, to unite and to thrive. Children are natural foragers. They enjoy collecting, gathering, sorting, and given the opportunity, will often be happy to spend endless hours outdoors. Toddlers pick up objects and explore them; usually with their mouths. Naturally, this is a source of much consternation to their parents, but teaching a child how to forage safely has the potential to be an enjoyable family activity that helps us to re-connect with our surroundings. In the process, children use their whole body to discover, gather and make.
It also involves fine motor skills developing the smaller muscles in the fingers, toes, eyes and other areas. The actions that require fine motor skills tend to be more intricate, such as grasping objects, carefully lifting a spoonful of flour, cutting around intricate designs and breaking an egg. Children can cut around pictures in themed magazines to create their own recipe books, or make sculptures of salt dough, and their Gingerbread House will need increased balancing skills.
Learning about a physically healthy life during baking
An environment that allows for physical exploration and freedom to act is supportive of children’s natural development, as children learn by utilizing all their senses. If they are allowed to see, hear, smell, touch and taste, they are providing their brains with an immense inventory of experiences. These experiences, together with the engagement of the brain, develop a cohesive mind and body integration. This is done by providing motives of activity; working via hands with real things, accompanied by mental concentration and movement; fostering the natural development through purposeful activities. The emphasis on baking with children stems from the aims of providing natural physiological development. Foraging and baking are real, not make-believe.
Baking satisfies and stimulates all the domains of development – cognitive, social, emotional and physical – and it provides numerous opportunities for physical mind-body connections, resulting in engagement rather than work. Baking with children is an activity that meets the needs of a child at any age. The beauty of it is that the difficulty can be adjusted to the individual child. When foraging and baking with children, the activity has a full cycle with a beginning, middle and end, becoming a real treasure box!
Written by Judit Horváth